' ' Cinema Romantico: Contraband

Monday, May 07, 2012


The first rule of screenwriting is…never make life easy for your protagonist.

The second rule of screenwriting is…NEVER MAKE LIFE EASY FOR YOUR PROTAGONIST!

Rest assured, “Contraband”, just released to DVD, does not make life easy for its protagonist. Poor Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg, running uphill all the way against this role and still making good time). Guy just wants to enjoy his night out at a wedding with his ridiculously winsome wife (the ridiculously winsome Kate Beckinsale) who is named Kate which suggests Kate Beckinsale yearned to get a little Method. And while they are drinking tall boys and grooving to bad 80’s songs, Kate’s little brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) is smuggling cocaine aboard a cargo ship only to toss it overboard when U.S. Customs makes its obligatory appearance. This angers local bad guy Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi, speaking in some sort of psychotic Ribisi-ized version of - I think - a Cajun accent). He vows to not only kill Andy but Andy’s sister and nephews and nieces and, yes, brother in law if he doesn’t get paid for the cocaine he failed to receive.

Chris, as you could likely guess, was once the Lionel Messi of smuggling and, thus, determines the best way to get square is to high-tail it down to scenic Panama City aboard a cargo ship and smuggle $10 million in fake bills back into the U.S. To quote Dr. Peter Venkman: “I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!” So Chris takes Andy with him and leaves ridiculously winsome Kate and the kids in the charge of his closest friend Sebastian (Ben Foster) who might just have a Twist(!!!) up his sleeve. And at this point, Aaron Guzikowski begins adhering to The Rules Of Screenwriting judiciously. What, you thought Chris was gonna bop into Panama, bop right back out with his cold hard cash, and everything was gonna be hunky dory? Ha! Once the cargo ship captained by a gruff J.K. Simmons pulls into port Chris, Andy and in-on-the-scheme crewmember Danny (Lukas Haas) have an hour to get their contraband and get back on the boat. But…

1.) The $10 million in bills turns out not to be printed on starch-free paper. Useless.
2.) They go to see crazy man crime lord Gonzalo (Diego Luna) to get some worthwhile fake cash.
3.) Andy absconds with the real money needed to buy the fake money to buy cocaine at the secret behest of Briggs.
4.) With no real money to buy the fake money Chris and Danny are forced to participate in a Gonzalo-led armored car heist.

And that's just the tip of the Panamanian isthmus! I mean, this screenplay of this movie based on a 2008 Icelandic movie (which starred Baltasar Kormákur who directs this version) must have looked like El Dorado to eager producers, with Reversals caking the bright white pages like gold dust. Never mind that the ridiculously winsome Kate Beckinsale’s ridiculously winsome Kate is the personification of the underwritten female – used and abused and abused some more (and then some more), existing to ignite the plot and then cower helplessly on the homefront to elevate “dramatic tension.” Seriously, the screenplay can cultivate that intricate ruse to bust Briggs (spoiler alert!) but can’t figure out anything for Kate to do other than get the shit beat out of her? Even her onscreen job at a beauty salon exists solely so Briggs can heedlessly crash his SUV through the front window.

Unwittingly, “Contraband” might just prove the truthfulness of The Auteur Theory. Kids, you wanna win a screenplay contest? Here’s what you do. Drink a few Red Bulls, write something like “Contraband” in a night and every screenplay contest on the continent will be ALL.OVER.IT. Guaranteed. This is the sorta schlock they eat up. This is a Donald Kaufman-styled screenplay. Ah, but then some studio buys it, hires a passable director, puts it into production, attends the premiere and realizes instantly……something is missing. It hits all the beats, sure, but doesn’t hit them with any élan. The canvas held such promise but the painter didn’t know how to use the brush. They needed a Picasso.

Speaking of which, that bit about the Picasso painting……it turns out the Farrdays have no respect for art, right? That’s the movie’s biggest joke and it didn’t even realize it told it.

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